What’s the Difference? Burglary vs. Robbery

Most people use these terms interchangeably, but there are significant differences between a burglary and a robbery that matter in terms of the type of crime and the legal consequences. Here’s how to know what kind of crime you’re reporting.
Meghan Wentland Avatar
Burglary vs Robbery
Photo: istockphoto.com

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn More ›

If you’ve been the victim of a crime and lost possessions that were financially significant or dear to you, you probably don’t care about the technical name of the experience; you’ll be too wrapped up in the anger, fear, and uncertainty that follows any kind of crime. However, burglary and robbery are two different crimes, and the distinction matters in terms of how the perpetrator will be charged, what your insurance may cover, and how you return to a feeling of security in your day-to-day life.

Burglary: Definition, Statistics, and Examples

Burglary vs Robbery Definition of Burglary
Photo: istockphoto.com

The FBI defines burglary as the “unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft.” What does this mean? Should a criminal decide to enter any permanent structure that is a home, business, railroad car, stable, or vessel (among others) with the intent of taking something or committing another crime, it constitutes a burglary. Automobiles are not included in this distinction; that’s a different crime. There are three classifications of burglary: forcible entry (breaking a window or kicking open a door), unlawful entry force (walking through an unlocked door or using a key to enter without permission), and attempted forcible entry (trying to break a window or door and gain access to the structure, but failing). In order for a perpetrator to be charged with burglary, it must be proven that the perpetrator intended to commit a crime once inside—it can be as small a crime as taking a handful of change or a protein bar off the kitchen counter. But the crime doesn’t need to have occurred to constitute burglary; if someone enters a home unlawfully with intent to commit a crime, they’re guilty of burglary even if they run away before they have the chance to commit the crime.

In 2018 there were approximately 1,230,149 burglaries in the United States, which makes up 17.1 percent of property crimes. Residential properties account for 65.5 percent of burglaries, totaling $3.4 billion in property losses, and 56.7 percent of these involved a forcible entry.

Because burglary is defined as the entry of a structure with the intent to commit a theft and is not focused on people, it is generally considered a less severe crime and in many cases will be charged as a misdemeanor, with penalties of fines, probation, or community service. However, burglaries that involve higher-level thefts or other factors may result in imprisonment.

Robbery: Definition, Statistics, and Examples

Robbery is a more significant and dangerous crime than burglary, and the consequences reflect the seriousness of the crime. Robbery is almost always a felony and is penalized with significant prison time and large fines. These consequences ramp up sharply if a weapon is used. The FBI defines robbery as “the taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear.” This is why robbery is considered the more severe crime—by definition, a robbery involves threatening the victims with harm if they do not acquiesce.

Less common than burglaries, there were approximately 282,061 robberies reported nationwide in 2018. Robberies totaled $598 million in losses, and residential robberies averaged a loss of $4,600 per robbery.

In order for the crime to be classified as a robbery, the criminal has to take property directly from a person and use force or threat of force to do so. Robbery is considered a violent crime, but the victim doesn’t have to suffer any physical harm for the crime to reach this measure, nor do weapons need to be involved: threat or intimidation are enough. The property that is taken can be on the victim—cash, jewelry, or other possessions—or in the control of that person, such as property in a safe that an employee is forced to open.

Burglary vs Robbery Robbery is Crime Against a Person
Photo: istockphoto.com

1. Burglary is considered a property crime. Robbery is defined as a violent crime committed against a person.

Both of these crimes include someone taking property or intending to take property that doesn’t belong to them, so they seem like similar crimes. The biggest difference between the two is that robbery involves taking the property from a person and causing that person harm. The harm can be physical or simply the damage inflicted by frightening or threatening the victim in order to coerce them to give up the property. Because of the inherent violence in inflicting harm (physical or otherwise) on another person, robbery is classified as a violent crime. Burglary involves taking property from a building and doesn’t physically involve the owner of the property, so while the owners of the property will still feel violated and victimized, they will not have come to any direct harm while engaging with the perpetrator.

RELATED: How To Prevent Home Invasion

2. A victim does not have to be present during a burglary; a robbery is in part defined by the presence of a victim during the crime.

Most burglars do not intend to interact with people after they break in—in fact, most burglars fervently hope they do not. Burglars break in with the intent of taking property that does not belong to them, and their plan is usually to get in, take what they want, and leave. A burglary can become a robbery if the burglars unexpectedly find that there are people in the building, but most burglars aren’t planning on personal interaction. In order for a crime to be a robbery, the victim must be present and interact directly with the perpetrator, who is likely prepared with a weapon or other threat to engage with the victim and forcibly take their property.

Burglary vs Robbery Robbery is Taking Someone’s Property
Photo: istockphoto.com

3. Robbery involves taking someone else’s property. Burglary only involves the intent to take someone else’s property.

This is an unusual distinction: If a robber intends to take someone’s property but takes no action to do so, they cannot be charged with robbery; something must be taken from the victim in order for the crime to be considered robbery. Burglary, on the other hand, is a charge based on intent. Once a burglar has entered a building without permission (with or without force) and intends to steal something, they have committed burglary. So if a burglar breaks into your home hoping to steal prescription drugs and rifles through your medicine cabinet but leaves without taking anything, they’ve still committed a burglary.

4. Robbery involves violence or the threat of violence, whereas burglary does not.

According to the FBI, 43 percent of robberies in 2018 involved strong-arm tactics, 38.2 percent included firearms, and other weapons were used in 18.7 percent—in some cases, more than one tactic was used, and all of them involved a level of threat. Burglaries are committed with the express intent of not engaging the victims; they are property crimes, and the distinctions between the degrees of burglary are based on the amount and value of property stolen, rather than the violence done to people.

Burglary vs Robbery Robberies are More Serious Crimes
Photo: istockphoto.com

5. Both robberies and burglaries can be considered felonies, but robberies are typically considered to be more serious crimes.

Burglaries are often misdemeanors, but they can rise to the level of a felony given certain circumstances; laws vary by state, but in many cases breaking into a residence is charged as a more serious crime than breaking into a business. If the burglar is carrying a weapon, even if they don’t have cause to use it, their charges will be more serious. And if the building is occupied at the time of the burglary—even if the burglar does not encounter any of the occupants—the level of crime is considered more serious.

Because robberies involve violence against people and not just property, they are almost always charged as a felony and carry much stiffer penalties than burglary. Our society regards the protection of life and safety as more important than the protection of property, so the penalties for threatening life and health are stronger. A robber does not need a weapon to use force or threat to carry out the crime, so a basic robbery charge can be based on the threat of force or harm. If the robber uses a weapon or is carrying one, the charge can elevate to armed robbery and the penalties can double or triple, because the presence of a weapon indicates an intention or a willingness to do physical harm.

A home security system can deter both potential burglars and robbers and help keep you and your family safe.

Certainly most people want to protect their hard-earned property from damage and theft, and everyone’s priority is to protect their families from threat or harm. In most cases, one of the best home security systems (like Vivint or ADT) will deter burglars and robbers from the start: As many as 9 out of 10 burglars will avoid homes with alarm systems. There are a number of different options among home security systems, and not all of them have to break the bank. From simple systems that you can monitor yourself from a cell phone that will alert you to a window or door opening all the way to smart-home systems where both you and a professional 24-hour monitor keep tabs on doors and windows, security cameras, and sensors that can detect potential burglars or robbers before they strike, there’s a good option for every residence and business. Some systems include a panic button for the user to carry inside and outside the home for additional personal safety. Even renters should take note: Rental properties are just as likely to be burgled as owned homes, and they may not be as well-covered by insurance to pay for the resulting losses. Modern home security systems can be fitted to a renter’s needs by using removable stick-on wireless sensors and self or professional monitoring over Wi-Fi.

These systems serve as both a deterrent and a remedy: Should the burglar or robber decide to walk past the signs indicating your alarm system, the resulting audible alarm, law enforcement response, panic button activation, and security camera footage will likely stop the criminal in their tracks, prevent the crime from being completed, and make the criminal easier to catch.

There are many home security systems to choose from, but the provider for you will depend on your needs, your budget and the system’s cost, and desired level of security.